We have finally made it to our northern most destination, and what a destination. The centre of the chinese universe, and the first thing we did was go and stand in the centre of that - Tiananmen Square, with the large intimidating picture of Chairman Mao starng down at us from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The Square itself is the largest in the world, and from the centre it even makes the massive portrait of Mao look pretty tiny back on the northern flank . ON our first evening, we had some light rain, but out came a very dramatic sunset and rainbow over the Square as the PLA did their marching steps to end the day and bear the flag in the Square. Pretty impressive, but almost impossible to see much as we shared the Square with about a million other people who had all come to see the famous march past. Still it was a pretty impressive way to introduce ourselves to the big city.
Beijing has a population of over 13 million!! and it is full steam ahead here for preparations for the Olympics. Not just in construction either, but also they are trying to teach some etiquette to the local population. Not sure how well this will work after centuries of spitting, hoiking, barging, queue jumping, smoking in public places, and generally being very loud! But apparently training courses have been introduced and some fines have been introduced. (-:
And for the all bad weather we expected here, our first couple of days have been great, apart from some hazy smog. In fact, it is a little cooler here (around 28 degrees) and Tuesday was a sensational beautiful sunny day, with no smog at all! Apparently this is a real rarity, but we enjoyed the sun for the first time in weeks. And we spent this day going around the massive 600 year old Forbidden City.
Unfortunately, however, the construction for the olympics also extends to giving facelifts to some of the major tourists sights. We were very disappointed to enter the Forbidden City and find that the first two major buildings were covered head to toe in scaffolding including the biggest building in the Forbidden City - the Hall of Supreme Harmony. They had pictures of them up on the scaffolding - great!
However, it all got a lot better after that and we saw all the rest of these finely kept royal buildings, and soaked in some of the imperialistic history of China. Despite the heaving tourist crowds, we still got a good feel for the lavish lives that were led here, and the way that the Ming and Qing dynasties cut themselves off from the general population. The main halls have some great names - as above, but also names like "Hall of Preserving Harmony" and "Palace of Heavenly Purity". They are all richly adorned and have great statues, and stairways which the emperor used to be carried over in his Sedan chair. No walking for these guys, even within the Palace grounds! But this is meant to be a place of tranquilness away from the populace. Not any more, the tourists have taken over, and sometimes, it verges on madness. The Chinese tourists all need to pose in front of everything for photos, and then of course pose with us again! And in here there were thousands of them.
The best place for a small amount of tranquility was to get over to the distant parts of the Forbidden City to Palaces and temples that were where the emperor, his empress, and of course concubines used to live. These showed some really interesting perspectives on their livestyles, especially of Puyi, the Last Emperor in the early 20th century (remember the Bertolucci film of the 1980s).
After much foot treading on this day in the sun, and worn out from tourism overload, we felt we deserved a treat. So we splurged at one of the finer restuarants serving Peking Duck (one of our favoured meals back in Chinatown in London). It was great, but served a wee bit differently to what we are used to. The whole duck is brought out by the chef, ie including the head of the duck still attached. We had half the meat served to us, while the table next to us had the other half. But then they chopped the head in half, and also gave each table half. So we ate our meal of duck in pancakes, with half a ducks head staring at us, with the brains hanging out!! Great meal, view not so great! Needless to say, the ducks head was shortly covered, and was still untouched at the end of our meal. At least they did not give us a doggie bag to take it home with us!
Up early tomorrow - the Great Wall of China awaits.....